Building Diversity: When a Diverse Student Body isn’t Enough

SarahMalayaSniezek's picture

Tolerance is extremely important to the future of the United States of America.  Currently, the U.S. is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and is becoming more diverse by the day (Ingram 2001).  At the same time, the global economy is growing rapidly, causing an increase in the amount of interaction between individuals from different countries (Ingram 2001).  If the United States is to survive as a country its citizens must be able to work well with each other, and those from other countries; therefore, they need to be tolerant of others’ differences.     

One of the best places to educate individuals on diversity and tolerance is a college campus.  Although only about 60% of U.S. civilians attend college (US Census Bureau 2006), individuals attend college at a critical point in their lifetime, when they are most open to intellectual experimentation and new ideas (Gurin 1999).  Research suggests that students who experience diversity during their college years are more likely to live in diverse areas in the years beyond (Gurin 1999).  In addition, other research suggests that diversity promotes academic success and cognitive development, the very reasons why individuals attend college in the first place (Humphreys 1998).

Collegiate diversity, integration and tolerance are not new issues on college campuses.  The majority spend a great deal of time, money, and energy promoting diversity (Tobin 2002).  Many of those colleges, however, generate a diverse student body, but fail to create a truly fluid pleural society (Tobin 2002).  In other words, the student body contains individuals from diverse backgrounds, but those individuals tend to remain in groups comprised of individuals with many similarities.  Bryn Mawr College is one college with that problem. 

At the root of Bryn Mawr’s problem of social segregation is Tri-co Summer Institute, a weeklong freshman orientation run conjunctively with Swarthmore and Haverford College’s that focuses on promoting multi-cultural awareness and identity (Farman 2005).  On the surface, the program seems to promote diversity, but in fact, the program promotes the opposite. Until 2006, the program was only open to “people of color”, and was only opened to white students due to the threat of a lawsuit (Transcript of Forum on Tri-co Discussion, May 17 2005).  Furthermore, Tri-co is not attended by all students, but only those who apply, and space is limited to those who apply earliest.  Therefore, while Tri-co may promote diversity, it only promotes inter-mixing between those who attend, leaving those who do not on the outside.  These boundaries are created before classes begin, and persist throughout the next four years.

In addition to the issue of selective attendance, Tri-co focuses on the racial aspect of diversity, almost ignoring issues in the diversity of sexual orientation, gender, disability, religion, culture, geography, and social class.  Tri-co makes those who attend extremely racial sensitive, which actually creates racial lines instead of breaking them down.  Instead of promoting diversity among many different people from many different backgrounds, Tri-co promotes the inter-group bonding between those in attendance, and ultimately, defines people by their race (Korbage 2002).  In this sense, Tri-co promotes segregation rather than pluralism. 

In order to fulfill the purpose of promoting pluralism among a diverse community, Tri-co must undergo significant change.  First, Tri-co must be mandatory for all students, and to make sure of this, it should be implemented within custom’s week, the week of general freshman orientation.  By doing so, the program will promote diversity within all people.  Social groups will not be carved out of a select few, but of the entire class.  Second, the program will focus on diversity in general.  While specific aspects of diversity, such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc., will be discussed in detail at different times, the overarching goal will be to promote diversity in its complete form.

  The first activity everyone will participate in is Barnga, a game that simulates cultural clashing.  In Barnga, the entire class will be broken up into groups of six.  Each group will be given a deck of cards and set of rules to a game called “five tricks”.  Then, it is announced that the game will be played tournament style with individuals moving from their original table to other tables throughout the game.  The participants are also instructed that they cannot communicate orally, or write words to communicate.  However, what the participants do not know is that each table was give a different set of rules.  In sum, after participants begin to move tables, global frustration insures, as people are playing with different rules, but can not communicate their discrepancies.  This simulates a cultural clash, and is used to open everyone’s eyes to how people have inherent differences that we must work with. (Thiagarajan, Goodman, Corbell, Flores and Steinwachs 1990).  

While there will be guest speakers, lectures, and some minor activities done as an entire class, for the majority of the rest of the week, individuals will be broken down into smaller groups, and an effort will be made to ensure the groups are as diverse as possible.  The next aspect of the weeks works to build trust among the groups, by having them work together, and come to agreement about certain fundamentals of diversity.  To do so, there will be lectures and discussion about the negative aspects of stereotypes, generalizations, and discrimination.  Before individuals can open up about who they are and where they come from, they must be ensured that they will not be stereotyped, generalized, or discriminated against for anything say.  Lectures and discussions about such issues will be used to educate those who do not have a clear understanding of the problems that stereotypes, generalizations, and discrimination cause. 

These activities will be used in conjunction with various trust building activities.  These trust building activities such as trusting your partner will catch you when you fall backwards, will foster a bond among the members of each group.  This will allow individuals to feel more comfortable with their peers, so they can actively participate in the most important part of the program.

The final segment of the program will primarily involve intimate group discussions about the similarities and differences of others, as well as discussions on readings on diversity.  The overarching goal will be to get people to open up not only about who they are, but about their perceptions of others.  From the beginning, the program will stress that people come from different backgrounds with different beliefs, some not as politically correct as others.  It will be important that people share their views, but if one says something offensive, instead of ridiculing that person, the others in the group will make an effort to help the person understand why those views are harmful.  Tolerance will be stressed at both the level of viewpoint and the level of inherent personal attributes. 

The ultimate goal will be to help every member of the class better understand the differences of those around them.  While race will be discussed, it is only one aspect of many that make a person who they are.  Friendships will be created under trust and the common understanding that everyone is different and bring something unique to the table.  The program will help create a community that is not only understanding to individual’s inherent differences (race, gender, etc.), but individual’s different viewpoints. In the end, we will have a student body that is not just made up of a diverse individuals, but a student body that is made up of diverse individuals interacting together as a single community.


Works Cited


Farman, Catherine “Tri-co Summer College Institute” Bryn Mawr College Website. November 28, 2005.


Gurin, Patricia. "The Compelling Need for Diversity in Education," Michigan Journal of Race & Law, 5(1), 1999, 363-425.


Ingram, Patreese “An overview of Diversity Awareness” Penn State College of Agricultural Studies. 2001.


Korbage, Aiham “Tri-Co in the Haver-World” The Bi-College News. February 26, 2002.


Tobin, Eugene “Mix of Ideas is Another Aspect of Diversity on College Campus” Philadelphia Inquirer. May 13, 2002.

 U.S. Census Bureau “Educational Attainment in the United States” September 7, 2006.


Anne Dalke's picture

Exploring Diversity

So much to talk about here, Sarah--so much that is both topical and long-standing.

I found myself w/ questions from your opening paragraph: wondering if small, fairly homogeneous liberal arts colleges are indeed the "best" places to educate individuals about diversity; wondering if college students really are "most open to intellectual experimentation" (am thinking about some current research on immigrant populations, who--when leaving home--become conservative, wanting to preserve traditional activities that may not much have interested them when they were part of the mainstream culture, but may become self-defining in a culture where they are a minority). And I found myself, from the get-go, wanting to know what you mean by "tolerance," how that differs (or not) from "diversity" and "pluralism." Is "promoting diversity" identical with the project of "encouraging tolerance"?

Your description of the Tri-co Summer Institute is a sharp one, and I also found myself wanting to know how Tri-Co advertises itself; are the goals of promoting pluralism (which you advocate) goals that the Institute shares? Or is that project a different one? What's the interation between "creating" and "breaking down" racial lines? Does one activity need to precede the other? (Or is that the thinking that underlies the Institute?)

Your calls for a focus on "diversity in general" puts me in mind of much of the material on the (now-dormant) Serendip website devoted to Making Sense of Diversity; have a look and see if any of that language has resonance for you. I'm also quite struck by your plan for customs week to "come to agreement about certain fundamentals of diversity." How diverse do you want/can you allow the outcomes of these conversations to be? How tolerant of views that might be hurtful/harmful to others? You want new Mawrtyrs to understand the differencs of those around them: do you want them to accept such differences? To work to change them?

What about the deeper work of the unconscious, that stereotypes without our even being aware of it? How get to that? If we can't, how ensure participants that they will not be stereotyped, in a new community where folks are meeting different sorts of folks for the first time, having their stereotypes activated, reinforced, and challenged? I was struck, for instance, by your plans to incorporate the game of "trust" in the week's activities: wherefrom trust? Can we always expect that (certain) others will break our fall? Should we have such expectations, in a diverse world? Or should we more aware of--and more wary of-- cultural differences?

You end wih a call to our interacting together as a single community--which makes me think, of course, of all those larger communities "outside," of which each of us "inside" is also a part. What is our communal and individual relation to them?

Yep, much more to explore. Let's keep @ it...your next project?

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